Monday, September 24, 2007

Proposal to Fund Separate Faith-Based Schools Endangers Ontario Public Education

These articles were first published in Socialist Voice, September 24, 2007

by Richard Fidler

The issue of government support for faith-based schools, a perennial question in Canada’s most populous province, Ontario, is once again a topic of public debate. With a general election scheduled for October 10, the opposition Progressive Conservative (PC, or Tory) party is calling for direct government funding of non-Catholic, faith-based schools “in the same way” as Ontario already funds a separate Roman Catholic public schools system.

The Tory proposal has been characterized by the big business media as the “defining issue” in the election. It has elicited fierce polemics on call-in shows and in letters-to-the-editor. Newspaper columnists and editorials debate the pros and cons. Where do the interests of working people lie in this debate?

The Conservatives, of course, are clearly plumping for votes among ethnic and religious minorities. But the Tory proposal, while limited to faith-based schools, is widely and correctly perceived as a further step toward weakening the public school system and lowering the quality of education available to Ontario citizens. It would open the door to further extension of private educational institutions at all levels and result in increased segregation of students and inequality of standards and facilities. And there are wider implications as well.

What about the Catholic “public” schools?

Just over 50,000 students in Ontario attend private faith-based schools. About half of them are in fundamentalist Christian schools. Another 20% are in Jewish parochial schools, and fewer than 10% in Islamic schools.

However, a whopping 600,000 students — about 30% of all Ontario elementary and secondary students — attend government-funded separate Catholic schools. What this means is that about 93% of all faith-based schools in Ontario are already fully funded by the province!

But among the major parties only the Greens call for an end to the separate Catholic schools and for one publicly funded universal public school system open to all.

(The public system would maintain the present French-language schools — currently divided between public non-denominational and Catholic boards. Ontario’s Francophone population is a national, not ethnic minority that historically waged a hard-fought struggle to overcome a ban on French schools. Of Ontario’s 72 school boards, 12 are French-language (8 Catholic and 4 public), with a growing proportion of enrolment in the public schools.)

The governing Liberals and the third-largest party, the social-democratic NDP, oppose the PC proposal but find it embarrassing. Their support of continued public funding of separate Roman Catholic schools, while opposing similar funding for other faith-based schools, clearly favours one religion over others. In 1984, both parties supported the then PC government when it extended the Catholic system to include all high school years.

On two recent occasions (1999 and 2005), Ontario’s discriminatory funding formula has been denounced by the United Nations Human Rights Committee. As the UN committee states, “… if a State party [Canada] chooses to provide public funding to religious schools, it should make this funding available without discrimination.” That is, either provide equal public funds for all religions or no public funds for any.

The Tory response is to create more government-funded separate school systems. The Tories make the preposterous claim that their proposal is “inclusive” — and neither the Liberals nor the NDP have challenged that claim. In fact, it is the opposite, dividing students from each other according to their parents’ religious beliefs (and, for many, according to ethnic origin).

Working people, in contrast, have every reason to promote the integration of students in one publicly funded school system and the elimination of all government funding for separate and private schools, whether faith-based or not.

What kind of ‘public’ education do we want?

To be credible, however, a defence of public schools must also address the sorry state of today’s schools and, more generally, of public education under late capitalism.

The educational system as a whole is a microcosm of class society, with all its divisions and inequality, and the education of children is an important terrain of class struggle. The capitalist rulers have always had their own exclusive schools for the education of their children, their legatees. The public schools, for the rest of us, are institutions for instilling the capitalist conception of society and creating a compliant labour force for the employers. This class bias is reflected in every aspect of the public system, from the streaming of students between trades and professional orientations to the content of core curriculum, particularly social studies.

Of course, no great importance is accorded to the quality of physical infrastructure, cultural and sports activities, or to staff relations within the public system. Under the neoliberal capitalist offensive, the public schools are increasingly underfunded, “extra-curricular” and special education programs are eliminated, and teacher unions are under constant attack.

Working people benefit from an educational system that furthers their unity, not their division. They need education that builds the knowledge, consciousness and confidence of the toiling classes in their collective capacity to manage the affairs of society. Teachers should be encouraged to use their professional skills to help broaden the cultural and scientific horizons of their students.

The issue of religion in the schools must be approached on the basis of a critique of capitalist education and an alternative conception of universal public education.

For a variety of reasons, faith-based schools — Catholic or non-Catholic — are popular in Ontario. For example, some ethnic and religious minorities, not least among the rapidly growing immigrant population, feel alienated from a “secular” public school system that makes no attempt to acknowledge their religious beliefs or accommodate their religious practices.

Many parents turn to personal and sectarian solutions, and the capitalist education system is only too willing to accommodate them in that regard through provisions for charter schools, vouchers, tax credits, etc. Such practices are widespread in the USA and, increasingly, in some of the more conservative provinces of Canada such as Alberta. In Ontario, the previous Conservative government voted a tax credit for parents who send their children to private schools. While the tax credit was overturned in 2003 by the newly elected Liberals, there are prominent members in both of these traditional capitalist parties who favour some form or other of government funding for private schools.

Some, like Tory leader John Tory (yes, that’s his name!) are even prepared to allow public funding of schools preaching “creationism” in opposition to the science of evolution — a clear sop to a particular layer of right-wing Christians who play an increasingly important role in government circles in both the USA and Canada. (The current federal minister in charge of police and prisons, Stockwell Day, for example, is on record as believing that dinosaurs coexisted with humans.) No such indulgence has been displayed toward Islam, however.

Integration requires reasonable accommodation

Educating children within a common social and institutional environment is probably the most important integrative device at the disposal of any society. As proof, we in Canada need only look to the powerful effect Quebec’s establishment of a single public and predominantly French-language school system has had in reinforcing the defining French character of that nation and integrating youth of non-Francophone and immigrant origin as fully functioning citizens of Quebec. (See sidebar at end of article.)

If minority religious communities are to be attracted to the public education system, however, that system must be receptive to their concerns. Where parents feel that religious beliefs and practices must be an integral part of the educational process, there is no a priori reason why some at least of those needs cannot be accommodated within a universal public system. This could involve such things as providing prayer rooms for practicing Muslims, providing non-pork diets in schools attended by Jews and Muslims, and so on. A court ruling that a child could wear the Sikh kirpan, a religious symbol, despite a school ban on this ceremonial dagger as a “weapon,” allowed Sikh children to be accommodated within the French-language public school system in Quebec: See Socialist Voice #71)

Some instruction in particular religions might even be made available to children whose parents so request — especially parents in immigrant communities often suffering discrimination and oppression on the basis of their religious identity.

The overriding consideration should be the need to encourage all parents to have their children educated within the common school system where they can be exposed to a diversity of ethnicities and religions and introduced to the widest range of beliefs and values, and receive generic education about world religions as a component of courses in world cultures and civilizations.

Such accommodation must be reasonable, of course. John Tory’s willingness to fund schools preaching “creationism” is unreasonable. Religious instruction should not trump science.

Widen the public debate

Issues such as these, however, illustrate the need to open up a wide-ranging public debate over the role and scope of public education, including what if any accommodation should be available for religious belief and practices within the public schools. In particular, we need critical input from progressive parents and educators, teachers, and their unions — all of whom have many proposals to advance on how to rescue public education from its current disrepute and disrepair.

Teachers, for example, have some important contributions to make in this regard.

In Quebec, the militant teachers union, the CEQ, published in the 1970s radical critiques of capitalist education, such as the pamphlets L’école au service de la classe dominante (1972) and École et lutte de classes au Québec (1974). In 1979 the CEQ implemented its alternative concept of progressive education through a major campaign in Quebec schools to raise funds and provide material aid to the mass literacy campaign undertaken by the new Sandinista government in Nicaragua.

In Ontario, in the 1960s, radical teachers caucused within their unions and published a journal, This Magazine is About Schools, that offered a left critique of capitalist schooling. Today, the Canadian Centre on Policy Alternatives publishes a teacher-edited quarterly journal, Our Schools / Our Selves, that to some degree resembles the earlier publication. Some of its material is on-line.

Supporters of public education need to engage with these issues in the current public debate on separate schools, by discussing and developing an alternative conception of education that is focused on the interests of the child and the child’s need for exposure to the vast diversity of people and ideas within our society.

Quebec’s Approach: a Secular, but Constitutionally Fragile, Public Education System

Defenders of Ontario’s discriminatory system invoke a “historic compromise” entrenched in the country’s Constitution of 1867, which gave minority (“dissentient”) Catholic schools in Ontario the same entitlement to public funding as minority Protestant schools in Quebec. However, this constitutional restriction can be removed by a simple amendment with the support of the Ontario legislature and the federal Parliament. In 1997 Quebec got a similar amendment by Parliament to remove the constitutional requirement for a separate Protestant public school system.

The Protestant school system in Quebec had functioned essentially as an English system that ghettoized Anglophone children and (because of its attraction to many immigrants) served in practice to hinder the integration of new immigrants with the province’s Francophone majority. As Quebec moved to affirm French as the sole and universal language of public communication and discourse, it was obliged to integrate the separate public school systems into one largely secular system that is overwhelmingly French (albeit with an English component for the children of parents previously educated in English in Canada who choose to have their children instructed in English).

Removing French-language public education from the grasp of the Catholic hierarchy facilitated the enrolment of non-Catholic youth — both immigrants and native born — in the Francophone system. It eased the acquisition of French language skills among non-Francophones, making them more comfortable within the majority French culture of Quebec.

Within this public system, Catholic and Protestant religious education was continued for a transitional period. However, beginning in September 2008, that curriculum will be replaced by a course in ethics and religious culture that will include studies of six world religions, among them Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and “the spiritualities of the Aboriginal peoples”.

The Quebec department of education states: “By bringing [children] together in the same classroom, instead of separating them according to their beliefs, and by promoting the development among them of attitudes of tolerance, respect and openness, we prepare them to live in a pluralist and democratic society.”

However, Quebec’s reform is still incomplete and under constant attack. The Quebec government partially funds private schools, which account for almost 10 percent of total elementary and secondary enrolment, the highest proportion in Canada. These private schools, many of which are faith-based, are disproportionately English. Moreover, the province’s Court of Appeal ruled in August that children who are otherwise ineligible for instruction in English may attend English public schools if their parents first send them to an unsubsidized English private school. The Court used the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to overturn a provision of Quebec’s Charter of the French Language.